Thumbs Up

Gary stood out under the now emerging stars, God and every satellite over the western hemisphere, thinking that he had finally outsmarted his opponent. Of course, if they had had a bit more finesse or, as the dapper man preferred to think, a bit more funding, they would have easily had their man. He had even set himself up for the perfect disappearance, having driven himself out of any tribal oversight he might have enjoyed, into a strange land with far-flung settlements.

But the end did not come. There were no disappearance crews on duty, no investigators closing in on their mark, no silent helicopters with masked agents swooping down from the heavens.

Back at the ranch — they were engaged in the endless sameness of surveillance and observation, back at their cobbled and hobbled search for a fleeting signal throughout the grids of a city. Who knows, thought the mind above the operator hands, maybe these events are all just cosmic noise. That would explain — without the paranoid militancy of the dapper man — why the signal seemed to walk through a wall and then disappear. Not that he didn’t appreciate the idea that he was actually chasing something that existed, but if the signal was just a random occurrence, then all of a sudden the guard might doff his gun and light a cigarette, and the operator could walk out into the sunlight — or rain and fog — breathe deeply, stretch like Rip Van Winkle, and walk away. As things were, he just had to face the door to know that walking away was a dubious prospect at best.

Unfortunately for the operator and his colleagues, their instruments were calibrated for the initial unchanneled signal and its characteristic radiation, but not for the mediated signal. In fact, the mediated channel — once the antenna was perfected — was nearly invisible. Even the flash-and-burn moment, when energy started to flow from the connection, left no discernible signature for the equipment at their disposal.

Now, I’ve been taken to task numerous times for representing this as a “government as usual” operation, with incompetence, bad decisions and inadequate resources. Not that these characteristics are unique to governments — but there is a style, a way of moving that reflects the particular cowardice of those who enjoy moving in the fluid we know by the name of “bureaucracy.” The vocabulary is laced with witticisms like the fictional “catch-22″ and the real mccoy “charlie-foxtrot.” They document governmental indifference — an incompetence that comes from fundamentally competent and incompetent alike, an ether or space in which those who seek the comfort of a hierarchy, steady budget and an escape from the survival-of-the-fittest ethic find a home; a space in which order is its own value, unsuperseded by money or ambition or glory. It is a moral order from which the immorality of indifference springs like an artesian well of human silence.

The operator had taken many a swill from this source. If you were to present him with two choices — order the assassination of someone, say a black woman you’ve never met, and you can walk away, or let her live and spend another five years in this rat’s hole — he’d be on the phone right away. But he didn’t expect and wasn’t prepared for what the dapper man put upon him.

“What do you think, soldier?” said Walton, dropping a photo in front of him. It was Alice and Reggie leaving the building. Another photo showed Gary’s silhouette at the front door. A third image was an infrared thermal image with the three of them and Andrew sitting in the living room. Finally, there was a thermal image of Gary’s car: a cone-shaped object seemed to glow in the back.

The operator looked at the dapper man and back at the images. There was obviously supposed to be a tale here, but he didn’t recognize it. He sensed that if he had, he might have been asked to walk right on out with the dapper man — never to return — but he knew that chance had already passed. He was just a thick-headed underling hemming and hawing. But he felt the challenge and wanted to make his mark.

“That’s her. That’s her boyfriend. I don’t know why that gentleman is there, but they all got together for a meeting. An unusual group. This must be one of their cars. It’s got a warm object in the back. I can’t make out what it is, but I’d sure like to see it up close.” He looked up from the pictures to try to gauge the dapper man’s reaction.

There was a pause — “What do you conclude?”

“I don’t know” wasn’t an option. So: “this is our conspiracy. We’ve got them under surveillance?”

“How do you know it’s a conspiracy, soldier?” asked the dapper man.

The operator was surprised but tried to regain his composure. “Well, if we had that object there we’d probably know.”

The dapper man gathered up his photos. “Maybe. It looks to me like it’s our missing monitor, though. And right now resources are not in place to grab that object. You’ve got either ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.'”

“What’s thumbs up mean?”

The dapper man smiled wanly, and said: “They live.”

The operator nearly upchucked but caught himself. There it was. This fatuous little man had a direct line to someone at the core of some secret agency, someone you didn’t call to crack open a trunk. And you certainly would not expect this little man to be standing over a trunk with a crowbar, while a black- and-white unit drives up behind him. There was just: thumbs up or thumbs down.

“Well, what’s it going to be, soldier?”

The operator looked for the photos that the dapper man tapped on the desk as one might to straighten out a deck of cards. Somewhere in those pictures was the thermal image of the two men, one across from Alice and the other beside her, but there at her side and wedged up against her side was the small frame of a child. As he reflected, his mind conjured up that little shape taking wing and coming to dog him through the long nights at the monitor, and into a future that waited at the horizon, long after he had escaped this trailer. He couldn’t. He made a weak thumbs-up movement, saw the disgust he expected, and he turned slowly back to his monitor. He only recalled later that he had also seen an unanticipated smirk.

The dapper man gave the operator one last moment to consider what he had done, packed up his photos in his shoulder bag and headed straight for the door. He may have made a motion to the guard at the door, of that the operator could not be sure. But he had the undeniable sense that he would not stand face-to- face with the dapper man again. If that man stood in the entrance to that trailer and looked in on him again, it would be to clean a house dirtied by too much compassion for the enemy.

So there you have it. Gary and Alice were saved that day by that cynical young man with his fingers on the predator. If it was his fear of ghosts, so be it. And you thought I had nothing but contempt for the government!